March 27, 2011

AHRC Forced to Prioritise 'Big Society' Research… – by Will

Writing about web page http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/mar/27/academic-study-big-society

Just saw this on Twitter:

Academics will study the "big society" as a priority, following a deal with the government to secure funding from cuts.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) will spend a "significant" amount of its funding on the prime minister's vision for the country, after a government "clarification" of the Haldane principle – a convention that for 90 years has protected the right of academics to decide where research funds should be spent.

Under the revised principle, research bodies must work to the government's national objectives, although the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said that ministers will not meddle in individual projects.

It is claimed the AHRC was told that research into the "big society" was non-negotiable if it wished to maintain its funding at £100m a year.

Continue reading...

There seems to be some debate between academics and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills as to whether or not this prioritisation was a voluntary move, but if the AHRC was strong-armed into this position then it is a very worrying development.

This being said, regardless of one's political beliefs, if the 'big society' model is going to become the dominant way in which communities encounter the arts and humanities then it is clearly very important that the scheme is properly researched.

Whether or not the research findings will please the government is another matter entirely...


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  1. Pushing aside my utter fury over the “clarification” of the Haldane principle to justify even greater governmental control over research priorities (for surely the role of universities is to pursue its own research agendas and mount effective intellectual challenges to governmental policy, not pander to spin) – WHAT DOES THIS EVEN MEAN? How exactly would they like us arts and humanities researchers to study “the big society”? Either they’re actually asking for it to be a primary topic of research (in which case, ALL of us?!) or they’re wanting us to relate our research back to the implications of this particular coalition policy, which is mindnumbingly reductive.

    Or alternatively, the implication is that they’re going to be advancing an even more dictatorial “impact” strategy than we’re already labouring under. Either way, it’s an appalling intervention into the intellectual freedom of universities; and I’m just happy that, judging by the outrage already voiced, the response from arts scholars is going to be decidedly negative.

    27 Mar 2011, 17:25

  2. William Thomas

    You’re right, it’s infuriating, disgusting and stupid. I particularly disliked the use of the word ‘clarification’. Without wanting to go all A-Levelly, it does sound like Newspeak.

    Personally I think it exposes the fact that the coalition doesn’t really understand what the arts and humanities are actually for, nor why there’s any reason to ever study them. I think studying the Big Society itself (appropriately abbreviated to ‘BS’) is limited to social scientists; the rest of researchers are forced into the position of valuing culture only as a useful product of, or effective conduit to, David Cameron’s BS. As you say, ‘mindnumbingly reductive’.

    To me it makes it clear that the government only values the arts and humanities as something it can put on its CV.

    27 Mar 2011, 22:06

  3. Anna Sloan

    This is my favourite paragraph from the article:

    “One of the tasks of research, according to the AHRC’s delivery plan, will be to define ‘difficult to pin down’ values in ‘recent speeches on the big society’, such as ‘fairness, engagement, responsibility, mutuality, individualism [and] selfishness’.”

    I mean, first of all, how Orwellian is that? The very idea that scholars exist in order to parrot the language fed to them by government officials, lending this language their intellectual weight, sounds straight out of soviet Russia. And second of all, thinking about how to define words like these is by and large a philosophy problem or a politics problem, not a Humanities problem. The government doesn’t seem to actually know what the Humanities are.

    28 Mar 2011, 15:22

  4. In fairness to the AHRC, they’ve just issued a very strongly-worded refutation of the article: http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/News/Latest/Pages/Observerarticle.aspx

    28 Mar 2011, 16:47

  5. Anna Sloan

    Here is the full AHRC ‘delivery plan’ which the article is quoting:

    http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/About/Policy/Documents/DeliveryPlan2011.pdf

    If you search for the words ‘Big Society’ you can see exactly where this is referred to. Actually it’s pretty minimal compared to all the ‘impact’ hooey going through the REF.

    28 Mar 2011, 18:03

  6. Hannah A

    Its interesting. The ‘refutation’ is strongly worded, and mostly convincing. But it also does seem a little convenient that the study areas that are being emphasised by the AHRC appear to fit into the rhetoric of the ‘Big Society’. Anna, I totally agree that the ‘impact’ thing is a far more worrying aspect of the changes to the AHRC modus operandi.

    I’m greatly concerned that this is another step in what seems to be a pincer movement to reduce the academy’s freedoms and ability to innovate and to research a diverse range of subjects. On one side, we have what is virtually the privatisation of public higher education, on the other we have a government trying (even if it is through the back door) to influence the spheres in which research can be conducted.

    28 Mar 2011, 18:25

  7. Anna Sloan

    Here are some more comments and a useful link on Guy Halsall’s Historian on the Edge blog.

    http://600transformer.blogspot.com/2011/03/words-fail-me.html#comment-form

    See especially the post from ‘Anonymous’.

    28 Mar 2011, 18:35

  8. Anna Sloan

    Another very interesting and thoughtful take, critical of the AHRC:

    http://boonery.blogspot.com/2011/03/ahrc-observer-and-mr-haldanes-principle.html

    Good point, Hannah, about the government simultaneously withdrawing support and demanding compliance.

    28 Mar 2011, 20:07


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